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Air Force, partners deliver aid to Indonesia

by Master Sgt. Michael Farris
353rd Special Operations Group Public Affairs

1/10/2005 - BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AFPN) -- Unfamiliar partners from disparate lands have tuned the tools of their humanitarian outreach trade and are working in unison in the wake of one of the world's worst natural disasters.

Airmen of the 353rd Special Operations Group, based in Langkawi, Malaysia, said the 16-hour days typically begin, oddly enough, at night.

Just an hour's flight from Sumatra's shattered west coast, crews of the C-130 Hercules aircraft there take off around dusk. Their destinations are Indonesia's capital of Jakarta or the humanitarian hub at a military airfield in Medan.

U.S. Marines and Indonesian servicemembers there help aircrews pack the planes to thresholds. On a single mission, 1st Special Operations Squadron Airmen carried 10 doctors from Portugal with tons of medical equipment, two mobile water purification trailers from Spain and an enthusiastic contingent of disaster-response specialists from Mexico. Bundles of cargo burst the seams of aircraft hangars in Jakarta and Medan, bearing the flags of countries worldwide.

Logisticians and leaders prioritize the loads, and the C-130s cycle through the process.

Most of the precious cargo is flown to the hardest-hit region of Banda Aceh. U.S. Marines and Air Force combat controllers direct the unloading of C-130s and other aircraft throughout the night. The massive bundles can be up to 8 feet high and weigh several tons -- far too large for effective distribution in this stark land where roads are impassable, trucks are scarce and the citizens are desperate.

The C-130s head back to Medan for second and third loads, always balancing maximized capacity with flight and ground safety. Forklifts do much of the heavy lifting, but not all. Loadmasters and people on the ground soak through shirts and flight suits in the humid Indonesian nights. Piles of tent poles and 200-pound canvases are too bulky to load on pallets and are, instead, heaved about with brute, back-breaking force.

As crews work to load a one plane, they pause to watch a seemingly endless line of refugees exit another. Thousands of refugees, many injured and all horribly shaken, have been flown to Medan by the international contingent. Very few carry any bags.

At dawn, swarms of U.S. Navy helicopters swoop into Banda Aceh from ships anchored off the coast. They queue into receiving lines at the airfield, directed by civilian air traffic controllers and 320th Special Tactics Squadron combat controllers. More helicopters from the Indonesian air force join the file and haul bundles to shattered cities up and down the coast.

The Air Force controllers use airfield management expertise to improve the efficiency of the operation and keep it safe. Another team of combat controllers works cargo shipping veins from Medan.

The hardscrabble squad organizing moving parts in Banda Aceh quintessentially defines the term "remote." Tents would be a step up in this rural Indonesian town where the dead outnumber the living. The Airmen sleep on the tarmac on cots covered with mosquito nets a mere 75 yards from where cargo planes maneuver in for unloading. The noise and commotion occur around the clock, and the physical demands are endless.

Their food and water consist of that which they brought in their trucks. As the sun comes up back in Langkawi, Malaysia, aircraft maintainers recover the planes and assess the status. The aircrews trudge off to sleep, and the maintenance begins. Luxuries of home station do not exist, and the logistic tail back to Japan is a long one. Pile on language barriers, security considerations and a minimal work force and the challenges become apparent. Two hallmarks of special operations, flexibility and innovation, are exercised daily.

The work being done by the 353rd SOG Airmen here is vital to recovery in the region, said Lt. Col. Rick Samuels, the Air Force special operations component commander.

"The moment we fail to react to others in need, we cease to be human," he said. "Our government cares deeply about helping these folks get back on their feet, and we demonstrate that daily."

Colonel Samuels said 353rd SOG officials considered several operating bases before deciding on Langkawi.

"In the days following the quake and tsunamis, there were a lot of questions regarding how to best get supplies in," he said. "The air choice was an obvious solution, but it's rarely efficient to bed down at a forward-distribution center. Ramp space is (at) a premium, and there's simply too much traffic in Banda Aceh.

"Instead, we looked at nearby airfields, and the Malaysian (liaison) suggested we consider Langkawi," he said.

Another challenge facing the group was arriving before the higher headquarters was fully stood up. Colonel Samuels said the 353rd SOG's unique capabilities allowed it to move into Thailand and begin delivering aid before Joint Task Force 536 had arrived.

"We knew the commander's intent, so we flew missions out of Bangkok for several days while policies were refined and staffs formed," Colonel Samuels said. "Shortly thereafter, we relocated to Malaysia to do the same for Indonesia." (Courtesy Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs)

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